We’re currently living and working through the third year of a global pandemic, and the cumulative burden of fatigue weighs down our lives and our semesters. As Beth McMurtie wrote in the Chronicle in 2020, “professors across the country are treading water, feeling overwhelmed and under-supported.” We’ve known for a while that we should plan for fatigue during this global pandemic. Students, teachers, and disability justice activists have been prophesying the dangers of fatigue all along. In particular, Aimi Hamraie has been beating the drum about opposing capitalist norms of productivity and slowing down teaching. Here at Plymouth State University, the Intersectionality Talks with Helen Rottier and Justin Shaw have each addressed the need for less overwork and more care in our classrooms.
Given this reality, we find it crucial to proactively construct our courses and semesters to mitigate fatigue rather than contribute to it. As Christina Katodopis has recently argued, “Self-care and student-care are complementary outcomes of the same teaching effort.” Fatigue is a disability justice issue, because it drains the time and energy disabled people need to care for themselves and their communities. Fatigue is a student retention and success issue, because it chips away at students’ capacity to learn and to manage their time. And finally, fatigue is a labor issue for students, faculty, and staff, because the current public health conditions during COVID-19 multiply the already back-breaking work of Higher Education into an untenable cycle of impossible expectations and burnout.
What follows are three perspectives on fatigue, three attempts to grapple with the present and mounting pressures of overwork in the time of COVID-19, and three concrete suggestions for navigating the ongoing pandemic. Cait Kirby shares about crip time and spoon theory, Asia Merrill discusses student labor, and Nic Helms warns against overwork. Our shared conclusion is this: pushing back against the ableist, capitalist, and white supremacist expectations of productivity in education is crucial to holding back the rising tide of fatigue on our campuses. In the same way that we need both a public health approach to the pandemic and informed individual personal choices, necessary changes to the overwork of the academy will come with broad, systemic shifts, as well as in the wake of each instructor’s individual changes to classroom policy, structure, and grading.
Cait S. Kirby, Teaching to Crip Time: Promoting Student Investment through Choice in Activity Content, Quality, and Quantity
In her book, Feminist Queer Crip, Alison Kafer describes the concept of “crip time” as a combination of “a flexible standard for punctuality” and “the extra time needed to arrive or accomplish something” embraced by many in the disability community. Disabled people often build in extra time for activities, and disabled scholars are no different. When I was a graduate student, and now as an Associate Director at a Center for Teaching and Learning, my chronic illness sometimes causes my body to give out at just the wrong time—two days before a big presentation, when others might be just beginning to prepare their presentation, for example. Given prior experience, I often build in “sick time” knowing that I will not be able to pull a marathon writing session, or wake up at 4 AM to finish a draft. The continued COVID-19 pandemic is sending waves of panic, dread, and anxiety through the population, and things are taking longer for everyone. While I don’t advocate that non-disabled folks use the term “crip-time” to describe their own experience right now, I do advocate for everyone recognizing the extra time tasks are taking and the lower threshold we all have before we reach burnout, and being responsive to those facts.
One way I have been managing the increased time-to-completion of activities and the sheer lack of time people have is by building that lack of time and effort into the course. When many sick days pile up and I am feeling demotivated, I know that increased investment in an activity can help me focus, even when I’m not at 100%. Since student investment can promote engagement, I often provide choice in activities or assignments. For a small pedagogy course I taught during the summer of 2020, while many of us were still adjusting to online courses, I provided participants guiding questions to help focus participants' reading of course materials. For full credit, I asked that participants answer at least 50% of each set of guiding questions. This allowed participants to gauge how much time and energy they had for the day, using another common disability framework: “spoon theory.”
Christine Miserandino popularized the concept of “spoon theory,” which suggests that activities require energy (spoons) and that individuals with limited energy due to chronic illness must make choices and carefully plan based on the limited number of spoons they have. While I don’t advocate for abled folks to use “spoon theory” to describe this planning, I think the framework of recognizing limited energy is useful.
Since I allowed participants flexibility in choice of the amount of their participation, if students in my class had little energy or time, they might only complete half. But if they had the capacity to do so, they often completed all the questions. By allowing participants to choose which questions they answered, they could skim through the questions and read what felt compelling and interesting to them. By prioritizing their investment, participants always came to class having done some reading and with some answers in hand, without being burnt out. Finally, by encouraging students to complete only part of the assignments, it normalizes the idea that work is always in progress. The ongoing nature of scholarly work is always important to consider, but it is crucial in the current climate.
In using this practice, I embrace the mantra that ‘done is better than perfect’ for both my students and myself. I suggest that being content with ‘done’ instead of striving for ‘perfect’ will help us prevent fatigue this upcoming semester. This approach can feel counterintuitive to our hard work - after all, why would we settle for just ‘done?’ From my perspective, we are not settling at all, but instead prioritizing our growth as learners and teachers while also valuing our mental and physical health. We cannot do good work if we are overworked and tired, and later, Nic Helms explains how we can break that culture of overwork. But first, Asia Merrill shares her own experiences with overwork this past year.
Asia Merrill, Respecting Students’ Time and Work Schedule
With many of the sobering realities of COVID-19 weighing on the current undergrad population, many of us set to work last year trying to accommodate new mental health needs alongside the numerous demands of higher education. As a student, every time I passed someone outside of my dorm room I was reminded that there’s a major universal crisis impacting nearly every aspect of my life. After months of adjustment to what some call the “new normal,” the whole subject has settled uncomfortably into the back of my mind while I attempt to function both within a university setting and a crumbling economy. As a middle-class, mostly independent student, I can say that the future must be met with compassion from both professors and administration, or else High Education risks the academic downfall and, worse, the mental health of their students. One of the ways accommodations were incorporated this semester was through a combination of ungrading policies and HyFlex education.
The shifting realities of the pandemic have provided opportunities for professors to practice ungrading policies. Ungrading prioritizes student self-evaluation and metacognition over traditional grading schemas, sometimes by eliminating grading altogether. Working three jobs on top of classes, I found that ungrading let me better manage my own time. Even with only one class with ungrading on the syllabus, I found ways to redistribute the academic weight throughout the week and prevent burnout. Additionally, ungrading permits the removal of gray area and personal bias by assessing whether the work meets the requirements rather than the degree of quality, which is an inherently more ethical model. While experiencing this type of framework for the first time, I found freedom to explore coursework on my own terms, and I felt that the priority shifted from deadlines to intellectual growth. I was able to draw real, applicable connections between racial justice and literature, and I grew as an academic writer through the multiple revision opportunities offered by ungrading. Many of my peers felt the same and appreciated the relative flexibility. Some of the relaxed deadlines helped ease pressure and I still, somehow, managed to meet most of them. A large portion of the rigidity in the average syllabus is unnecessary at best and ableist at worst.
Ungrading, while largely beneficial, still poses challenges to students and faculty alike. Students—who are used to using numerical grading to understand their success in their courses—sometimes resist the idea of classes without a traditional grading structure. I, like many others, looked to numerical grading as a percentage of how good I was at the subject matter. In some ways, it was a way to understand how “okay” I was in general. “Things can’t be that bad. I still have great scores in my classes.” This less numerical (yet more objective) method of grading was at first a source of frustration for me, but it forced me to check in with myself on a personal level and, within the context of the classes with the ungrading structure, interact with material in a way that was more exploratory, which was consequently more beneficial. It was a challenge and a growth opportunity.
While I found the lack of grades challenging, other students struggled without hard deadlines, as they can be a safeguard against procrastination. Many confuse this for a lack of accountability on the part of the students. True, some may “take advantage” of this system, if taking advantage means submitting all of their assignments in one final rush, leaving professors swamped with papers to grade. This is absolutely a possibility. But what drives a student to do something like that? And is the hard deadline worth the mental toll? In my experience, no. And, more concretely, I’ve seen professors offer a collaborative approach to the syllabus and grading criteria - an egalitarian construction of expectations - and students rose to the occasion. They made reasonable requests, voiced concerns, and were thrilled when we could come to a conclusion on what would work for everyone. The benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and ungrading as a philosophy does not restrict professors’ ability to set reasonable boundaries.
The system is not perfect, and could be out of sync with administrations that still lean on traditional grading styles. Since many universities still dole out letter grades at the end of the semester, will students be unprepared for such final grades after a semester without any? It’s possible to mitigate some of these concerns with thoughtful syllabus revisions and active collaboration with students on a continuum. This could look like firm deadlines, but ones with room for appeal, and thoughtful feedback from instructors rather than numbers, which don’t offer specific recommendations anyway. Despite these challenges, ungrading is still a step in the right direction with regard to accessibility and course building.
I and other students are left to wonder what adjustments will be put in place moving forward. Even as an abled student, I’ve met significant challenges in the past semester. Some professors have ingrained accommodations into their classes, but what should happen instead is a full restructuring of the syllabus. It’s not lowering the bar, but removing a barrier. In “The Human Work of Higher Education Pedagogy,” Jesse Stommel addresses what he considers to be the misleading concept of scaffolding: “Learning cannot be reduced to or packaged as a series of static, self-contained content modules.” Scaffolding is a method he considers controlling and problematic. While outright removing scaffolding might not be possible for all courses, we agree with Stommel’s assertion later in the piece, that “we need to find more ways to involve students in the design of their own learning, scaffolding with students and not for them.” Similarly, we think that scaffolding should be responsive to students, their needs, and their individual backgrounds. Last year, I began to see scaffolding replaced with student choice and with ingrained accommodations.
HyFlex classes were a start. They became a tool for chronically ill or chronically busy students to participate without the exhausting performance of physically being in class. I saw students avoid catching COVID, care for children, work jobs and join the military thanks to hybrid classes, all with the added security of relative anonymity. Such classes relieved pressure on the students who didn’t have the energy to participate but needed to absorb class content. However, because of the sudden onset of COVID-19 restrictions, most faculty members were undertrained to teach online classes. This created some ambiguity throughout the courses, which wasn’t ideal for students attending asynchronously. It also increased the workload for professors. Incorporating student choice, as Cait addressed in the previous section, combined with the optimization of HyFlex classes could significantly ease the burden on students in the future, but only with adequate training and support for faculty.
Nic Helms, Working to the clock for students, or a 40 hour school week
As faculty members, we may not be able to exert much individual control over Higher Education’s response to the pandemic, over the state of American politics, or over the widespread dehumanization of marginalized people in America. We can and should collectively advocate for social justice, but doing so won’t save ourselves and our students from fatigue overnight. What we do have as faculty is a tremendous amount of control over work: the power to set (or at least mitigate) workloads for our students and therefore for ourselves as well.
If, as logic of the necroliberal university proclaims, college is primarily job preparation and can be likened to a full-time job (a problematic notion on several levels, but follow this with me to the edge of absurdity, won’t you?), that means that colleges should ask for at most a 40 hour work week from students, right? The 40 hour work week is one of the nationally celebrated triumphs of the labor movement, and it’s a line ensconced in many job contracts, one that doesn’t negate but at least pushes back against the ableist productivity expected of everyone under capitalism.
So, let’s begin our calculation at 40 hours a week for the average college student. And don’t forget lunch breaks! That’s five hours off, leaving 35 per week. At 15 credit hours for a full-time student, that's 2.333 work hours per credit hour. That means 7 hrs per week for a 3 credit course, 9.3 for a 4 credit course. Class time included! I teach 4 credit courses. Roughly 4 hours of class weekly, including pre- and post-class conversations, clarifications, and quibbles. So if I ask for more than 5.333 hours of additional work per week from my students, outside of class, I'm deliberately overworking them. If you ask for more work than that, you're overworking your students.
A 40-hour work-week should be seen as the absurd upper limit of what we should expect from our students and, by extension, of ourselves.
This all-too-swift analysis doesn’t even take into account that things take longer to do right now during the pandemic. This inertia or downright absence of time can be pinned to a variety of factors: we’re not being reenergized by our passions and by social feedback; our breaks and weekends are disappearing to pressing activism on multiple fronts, increased care work (both in and outside the classroom), and public health concerns (like tracking down our own effective at-home tests and authentic, high-quality personal protective equipment); COVID-19 demands additional labor where required testing, masking, attendance, seating charts, and hybrid classrooms are concerned; and the facade of professorial professionalism requires more and more investment to maintain. Not to mention Zoom Fatigue!
Cait Kirby’s ideas about how to implement crip time in the classroom are vitally important to combatting overwork. And this analysis doesn’t even begin to address Asia Merrill’s contention: how much work do we actually expect our students to produce when they must also work part or full-time to pay for tuition? How much work can we expect when our students are facing food and housing insecurity? And how does the entanglement of ableist and capitalist productivity with white supremacy place an increased burden on students, faculty, and staff of color? Importantly, the issues addressed here—paternalism, perfectionism, sense of urgency, individualism—are all examples of white supremacist culture, which harms members of marginalized groups and must be eradicated.
If, rather than bowing to superhuman expectations of productivity and professionalism, we instead design our courses around what our students (and ourselves) can reasonably accomplish in a humane work week, we’ll go a long way toward addressing fatigue in our classrooms and on our campuses. Such design includes (but is not limited to): scaling back and automating feedback and eliminating disposable assignments; being open with students about your own fatigue and struggles (if it's safe for you to do so); building breaks in for yourself and your students to accommodate for the lack of holidays and spring breaks through a module-based schedule; shortening synchronous class times, especially when class involves Zoom (if something doesn't have to be done in class, give students time out of class to do it asynchronously); and Basic Needs syllabus language for flexible mental health days.
Building a variety of breaks into synchronous class time has worked especially well for me during the pandemic. My own internalized ableism eggs me on to “stay productive” and “push through,” but accessible teaching—especially when it involves HyFlex—takes time, energy, and lots of emotional labor. We can build all sorts of pauses into the high-stakes labor of classroom discussion, such as group work, reflective exercises informed by the trauma of recent years, and even simple water (and of course, coffee) breaks. If I’m approaching the edge of burnout myself, I can’t expect students to follow me pell mell into ever-increasing fatigue. Taking time to regroup, slow down, and simply breathe isn’t a waste of class time. Rather, it’s a reinvestment of our energy into the constant care work involved in education.
Ultimately, designing for fatigue isn’t just about COVID-19 or this academic year. It’s about a long overdue reckoning with the toxic ableism of productivity in Higher Education. It’s about breaking down systems that reinforce overwork in order to rebuild our classrooms into communities of access, care, and equity. If we can imagine a post-pandemic campus that nurtures rather than fatigues, we can begin to make such campuses our future.